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CNN Film: "Life Itself"

Aired January 4, 2015 - 21:00   ET



ROGER EBERT, FILM CRITIC: We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people.

And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.


STEVE JAMES, DOCUMENTARIAN (voice-over): Exactly five months before his death, Roger and Chaz and I met to plan the beginning of an ambitious schedule of filming, including interviews and critic screenings. Roger mentioned in passing that his hip was sore. The very next day, he entered the hospital.

EBERT: Somehow I got a hairline fracture to the femur bone. I didn't fall and have no idea how it happened. It's bloody painful.

This is my seventh time at rehab. Show Steve the new chair. It reclines.

JAMES: So, Roger, did you not pay your insurance premiums and so you didn't get the chair until now?

EBERT: Steve, I'll do the jokes here.

JAMES (voice-over): Although Roger had supported my films over the years, this film was the first chance to really get to know him.

EBERT: Steve, shoot yourself in the mirror.


Hi, Carol.

CAROL: I'm Carol, I'm Roger's assistant for over 20 years, Roger and Chaz.

And "Zero Dark," something is winning all the awards, Roger, want to know the big award. And the Bears lost.

My daily -- what? Briefings.


CAROL: OK, Roger.

And then, Mayor Daley's nephew went to court today. Remember for the Kunzman (ph) thing that "The Sun-Times" really uncovered?

EBERT (voice-over): I always worked on newspapers. There was a persistent need, not only to write, but to publish. In grade school, I wrote and published "The Washington Street News," which I solemnly delivered to neighbors in Urbana, Illinois, as if it existed independently of me.

At "The News Gazette," a Linotype operator sent it in lead, "By Roger Ebert." I was electrified.

And I went home, you could take a stamp pad and put your byline on everything. My parents finally had to take it away from me. Everything was "By Roger Ebert."

And I went to work full time for the local newspaper when I was 15 versus a sports writer. General assignment, working late, being there with the newspaper men back in the '50s. It was unspeakably romantic. I can write. I just always could. On the other hand, I flunked French five times.

In the spring of 1960, I announced I wanted to go to Harvard, like Jack Kennedy and Thomas Wolfe. "Boy, there's no money to send you to Harvard," Daddy said.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois, to provide knowledge for a better tomorrow.

EBERT (voice-over): I would go to my hometown university. I wouldn't be an electrician like my father. During my years at Illinois, I spent more time working on "The Daily Illini" than studying. It was in every sense a real newspaper, published five days a week on an ancient Goss rotary press that made the building tremble.

As editor, I was a case study: tactless, egotistical, merciless and a showboat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And he was. But it worked because he could back it up. It was intimidating to the members of the staff because he was like a mature writer at that time.

Now here, when those four children were killed in the church bombing in Birmingham, there was a huge protest around the country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Four hundred students gathered on the university quadrangle to protest the bombing of an Alabama Sunday school -- UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Roger was the voice of outrage on this campus.

He started off his column by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, who said to George Wallace, "The blood of these innocent children is on your hands." That ended the quote.

Then Roger began his column by saying, "That is not entirely the truth. The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling. And it is not new blood, it is old, very old. And as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away."

That began a column written by a 21-year-old guy and he said it better than anybody said it all week.


EBERT (voice-over): Chicago was the great city over the horizon. We read Chicago's newspapers and listened to its powerful AM radio stations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, it's midnight here in Chicago --

EBERT (voice-over): Long after midnight, I listened to Jack Agha, broadcasting live.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- in the Chez Lounge in the world famous Chez Paree.

EBERT (voice-over): Chatting with Martin and Lewis or Rosemary Clooney. I'd been accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in English by the University of Chicago, but I needed a job.

I got a part-time job at "The Sun-Times" and then five months later, the film critic retired and they gave me the job. I did not apply for it.

Newspaper film critics had been interchangeable. Some papers had bylines that different people wrote under, for example, "The Tribune" had May Tenay (ph) and that could be whoever went to the movies that day because May Tenay (ph) really spelled out matinee. I was at that time the youngest daily film critic in America and it was a real good time to be a movie critic.


"BONNIE": Armed robbery.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Bonnie and Clyde is a milestone in the history of American movies.

"BONNIE": But you wouldn't have the gumption to use it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): A work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking.

"BONNIE": Hey, what's your name anyhow?

"CLYDE": Clyde Barrow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): And astonishingly beautiful.

"BONNIE": Pleased to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn't mean a thing. It had to be set sometime. But it was made now and it's about us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger was the most fascinating writer I ever came across. Anybody that's ever seen him work, he could knock out a full thought-out movie review in 30 minutes, fast and furious.

RICK KOGAN, CHICAGO NEWSPAPER MAN: There was so many reporters that formed easy, quick friendships because they were smart, they were good writers, they were literate and they could tell a good story in a saloon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): O'Rourke's (ph) was our stage and we displayed our personas there nightly. It was a shabby, street corner tavern on a dicey stretch of North Avenue, a block after Chicago's Old Town stopped being a tourist haven.

When a roomer who lived upstairs died, his body was discovered when maggots started to drop through the ceiling. For many years, I drank there more or less every night when I was in town. So did a lot of people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We all sat at the same place. Newspaper guys here, (INAUDIBLE) in the middle, the sorty (ph) staff at the very end of the bar.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger has always been attracted to weird types, I mean, you should see some of the women that he's hauled into O'Rourke's over the years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back in the old days, Roger had probably the worst taste in women of any man I've ever known. They were either gold diggers, opportunists or psychos.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I met Roger one time with a woman that looked like a young Linda Ronstadt. Then when she was gone from the table briefly, I said who is that?

And he said she's a hired lady.

And I said, a hooker?

And he said, now you take care of her when I leave.

And he left town and anyway...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger, he used to hang from the lamppost at the end of the bar. When he got going, Roger was one of the finest storytellers that I have ever come across.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger was good at dishing, but he could also take it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm the fat guy that has to learn how to take fat stuff. I mean, Roger could hold his own with all of them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody kind of says that like deep down, he's a nice guy. He is a nice guy, but he's not that nice.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's not that nice.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): I discovered there was nothing like drinking with the crowd to make you a member. I copied the idealism and cynicism of the reporters, I spoke like they did, laughed at the same things, felt that I belonged.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Studs wasn't a Chicagoan. Nelson Allman (ph) wasn't born here, Saul Bellow wasn't born here. But there's a certain kind of Chicago character that Roger really came to believe that he was.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bratcher was not just the chief character and star of the movie that was his life, he was also the director. And he brought in the cast and the scenario and he orchestrated it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The last week he was drinking, I even realized that there was a serious problem going on. Watching him when he pulled out that night in front of O'Rourke's and almost ran into the North Avenue bus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I remember being in the drugstore that was on the corner there one morning. And Roger came in and he looked like absolute hell.

I'm like, are you OK? What's the matter?

(INAUDIBLE). Can you come have a drink with me?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said to me one time and I don't think he'll regard this as a betrayal, that he would walk home late at night after O'Rourke's had closed and he would wish he was dead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): I found it almost impossible once I started to stop after one or two. I paid a price in hangovers. Without hangovers, it's possible that I would still be drinking. I would also be unemployed, unmarried and probably dead.

In August 1979, I took my last drink. It was about 4 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. The hot sun streaming through the windows, I put a glass of scotch and soda down on the living room table, went to bed and pulled the blankets over my head. I couldn't take it anymore. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The next time I saw Roger Ebert, he was in AA.

EBERT: I was drinking very heavily.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): When I decided to out myself as a recovering alcoholic, I hadn't taken a drink for 31 years. And since my first AA meeting I attended, I've never wanted to.

Since surgery in July of 2006, I haven't been able to drink at all or eat or speak. Unless I go insane and start pouring booze into my G tube, I believe I'm reasonably safe.

JAMES (voice-over): By the time I got home from this shoot, there was an e-mail waiting for me.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): One day in the spring of 1967, I noticed "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" playing at The Biograph on Lincoln Avenue.

The posters displayed improbably buxom women and I was inside in a flash. And that was when it first registered that there was a filmmaker named Russ Meyer.

In 1969, the 20th Century-Fox Studio invited Meyer to the lot for an interview. They owned the rights to the title "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and offered him the title unattached to any story. Meyer offered me the screenwriting job and I fell into a delirious adventure.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The most impossible question for me to answer is how on Earth did Roger Ebert write "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" or be interested in writing such a script? Or be involved with Russ Meyer? I have no answer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did he love about Russ' films, do you think?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The fact that there were large-breasted women involved probably was a plus.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you want to make love?

Then let's make love.